Japan is notoriously crowded, and even more so during the mild months. The spring sakura and autumn koyo attract millions of tourists each year, while the summer holidays for many other nations means kids and families have more free time to travel. By visiting in the winter, travelers can experience a totally different side of Japan and avoid the madding crowd.
Much of Japan’s topography is made up of mountains. So it’s only natural that the skiing, snowboarding, skating, and other winter sports available are some of the best in the world. Hokkaido’s Niseko in the north is particularly renowned for ski resorts and the ideal powdery texture of the snow.
Wintertime in Japan would be nothing without the legendary hot springs. Whether it’s a small local spring, a five-star resort, or an entire town built around the industry – like Kusatsu – onsen are the best way to relax and re-energize for the wintry days ahead.
Japan loves its seasonal specialties, and there are some things one can only find around the coldest time of the year. As the temperature drops, restaurants and combini bust out their take on oden, a hot, healthy and filling snack made from soy-braised vegetables, meat, and tofu products. And while technically available year-round, hot pots (nabe) and hot sake are best enjoyed on chilly evenings.
Sapporo transforms into a true winter wonderland for the Snow Festival, a celebration that attracts over two million visitors each year. Lasting one week in February, the event features illuminations, skating, and games, but the standout feature of the celebration is the snow sculptures. Teams representing their countries come from all over the world come together to compete, creating enormous works of art made of nothing but ice and snow.
Illuminations and light shows bring out the beauty of an otherwise bare wintry landscape. Large cities like Tokyo and Osaka are famous for their seasonal illuminations, but most cities will have their own spectacular displays. Outdoor displays like the ones in Ueno or outside Roppongi Hills are one of the best ways to enjoy the season.
Sometimes known as lucky or ‘happy bags,’ fukubukuro usually go on sale on January 2nd, with people lining up outside for hours for their chance to nab the most popualr ones. The appeal is that the value inside the bag far outweighs the price you pay. The catch is that you don’t get to choose what’s inside, so it’s a gamble. Most clothing stores offer fukubukuro that can even be pre-ordered online, but even the Apple store in Japan has its own lucky bags.
Many animals are in their element come wintertime. The Snow Monkey Park or Jigokudani Yaen-koen is full of the famous red-faced monkeys soaking in the park’s many onsen, while in Hokkaido the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary is home to the red-crowned cranes gathering for their annual mating dances.
With the cool air keeping cloud cover to a minimum, wintertime is the best time to see the mountains surrounding the cities, including Mount Fuji itself. The quiet and sound-absorbing properties of snow also make it the perfect season for introspective hikes in the countryside or strolls through the city.
Shirakawa-go is a small, traditional village in Takayama in Gifu Prefecture. The homes have tall, pointed roofs in the gasshō-zukuri style. In winter, the village is illuminated like a scene from a Christmas card, and is best viewed from the observation point above the village. Along with Gokayama, the historic settlement is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.